Monday, October 20, 2014

Where'd You Get That Idea?





Ever since I started this whole Americana painting series, I've been besieged by people asking where I get my ideas for scenes. Well,  I'm not saying hundreds of people ask me.  In truth it might even be less than a dozen.  Okay, maybe one person asked.

Apparently, I have a low thresh-hold when it comes to besiegers...

Anyway, since I keep no "Official Artist Secrets"  I thought it would be fun to chat about that aspect of painting.

Doing figurative, and even narrative scenes does require a tad more thought than zipping around the country side looking for places to paint, if I say so myself.  After all, the Americana paintings involve depicting scenes of 100 years ago.  But whether a painting is a landscape or Americana, first the inspiration has to hit me.

I have a pretty good collection of books pertaining to the 19th Century, and I'm always hunting for more.  I keep some of them in my studio where I love to kick back and go through them in search of ideas.  It isn't the photos that usually get me, but some description of an event.  If it's written well, a mental image pops up that might inspire me.



Take Day Dreamer, for instance.  I got the idea from a diary entry written by a young girl at the turn of the Twentieth century.  (It was in the dark blue book above, next to Hometown U.S.A.)  In it, she talked about her chore twice a week of trimming the wicks and cleaning the soot from the chimneys of oil lamps.  I thought that might make an interesting little slice-of-life scene, so I noodled the small thumbnail sketch I show at the top of this page.  But there it sat for months until I stumbled upon an authentic dress from that time period at an antique store.  I knew my grand-daughter Paige would make an excellent model for the girl-- and in truth I wanted to use her in some kind of picture all along.  So after a posing session with her wearing the dress, and sitting at a table with some old oil lamps, Voila!  There it was.





The painting Daily Commute was a different animal entirely.




That one started as a simple car trip through Bowdoinham, Maine on a glorious summer day.  I was passing over the Cathance River and saw a train trestle that is actually still in use.  In my minds eye, I saw a group of kids playing and swimming in the water near the stone trestle as a train chugs by.  I thought it was a marvelous idea.  In fact, it was so good Thomas Eakins almost did it for me...





Okay, I thought, what else could be going on in the river?  For some reason, a river ferry came to mind.  Why, I don't know-- I hadn't been reading or looking at any photos of one.  But hey-- why not?  So, a ferry traversing the river while a train goes by.  Oh, and wouldn't it be cool if I showed someone- maybe in a horse and buggy- waiting on the shore?  And that's really the skinny on how I do it;  I just start thinking up scenarios as I go along.  After my brain-storming session, I started in with the thumbnails:






Basically, these are just short-hand to get my thoughts on paper.  I finally settled on this one:




I don't know about you, but I really try very hard to make as compelling an over-all design as I can.  I might have one idea or vantage point when I first come up with an idea, but I'll try several thumbnails to work out any possible alternative.  You may not like the one I chose, but it wasn't because I didn't think of anything else.

Now, all of those were done without any reference material.  So the next step was to find locations, research old photos, you name it, anything I could find to look at in order to make this idea come to life.

Here's a screen shot of my reference file for this painting:



And I still had plenty more.  You can see that I have a mixture of here and now, and way back then.  The here-and-now shots are of places up to fifty miles from my home.  But also notice-- I didn't copy any of these in the painting!


I use photo reference material for one reason:  To show me how something looks so that I can make an informed depiction of it.  I can imagine a tree, or a river or a plank fence.  But seeing the real thing gives me those little details that I probably would not have thought of otherwise.  So while the scene is imaginary, all of the elements in it are based on real things, just reverted back to my imagination to fit in with the scene.  Don't be afraid-- It makes sense to me...

After all of that comes the painting part.  See?  Nothing to it!


So now you know how it all comes about.  Currently, I'm in-between paintings.  But not to worry-- I think I may be coming up with an idea!

And so the process begins anew...





Thursday, September 25, 2014

Mine Doesn't Look Like That





Back before the dawn of time, you know-- when I was starting to paint-- finding contemporary art to look at wasn't that easy.  By "Contemporary" I mean stuff done by living artists, not necessarily a style. ( Of course, the interweb didn't exist-- heck, TV only had four channels.  And no remote!)  In search of art, one had to view art magazines like American Artist, or try to find art books in the library.  Going to art galleries was out of the question for a kid growing up out in the sticks like me, and museums weren't exactly located just down the road from me, either.  But when I did manage to look at art, one thought kept occurring to me:

My stuff doesn't look like that!

What I was seeing was work done by more modernist types, or if they showed realism, it was by artists at the top of their craft.  As a fledgling artist wannabee, it gave me pause, but also a conviction to get better.

Nowadays, of course, not only is it far easier to see art, it's almost inescapable.  Web sites, social media, along with tried and true print methods mean I can spend hours and hours looking at what's out there in art land.  What do I notice the most?

My stuff doesn't look like that!

To be perfectly honest, there are times when that thought keeps me up at night.  Usually when I've spent time looking at art gallery web sites. Like you, I check out galleries for a couple of reasons.  One, to view some good art and gauge how I stand with my stuff.  Second, to see if my work might fit in for future representation by that gallery.  What I see is almost always depressing.  Not that the work I see is so good, and mine is so bad (Although unfortunately, that's not all that rare...) But mine is... different. So I question if the gallery would be interested in my depiction of things.


Then again, there are times when I view my style and voice as a good thing.  After all, aren't we trying to be different?  Aren't we supposed to try and stand out from the crowd?  I remind me of the kid who shaves half his head, and dyes the other half ultra-violet, has a fire-breathing dragon tattoo scrawled on his neck, then has assorted pins and chains dangling from his eye-brow, nose and lip-- and complains when people look at him.  It isn't lost on me that my choice of subjects done in a realistic manner has been done to death.  So, isn't using my own voice in trying a different slant on the tried and true a sign of maturity as an artist?  So yeah,  there are times when I inwardly puff my chest out and say to myself with pride:

My stuff doesn't look like that!


Then, with renewed confidence in myself, I go back to looking at gallery websites.  And begin the cycle all over again...

Because isn't it a double edge sword?  If you paint like the crowd, why would any gallery notice you?  After all-- they already have what you do.  If you are going to paint scenes like everyone else, you better be tons better than the average artist.  And that, I am not.  But then again, human nature being what it is, some galleries want the tried and true.  Why risk it- especially in this economy? So, they probably won't look at anything new either.

Now, I will say right here that I am blessed to be with the galleries I am currently in.  They have exhibited a willingness to try something new by taking me on, and for that I am truly grateful.  And truth be told, I'm usually too busy painting my latest, or coming up with ideas for my next to stop and care about where I stand in the grand scheme of art.

So, what's one to do?  Put the blinders on and paint with the conviction that I am doing what I believe in.  And for those occasions when that nagging bit of doubt creeps in to make me stop and say, "My stuff doesn't look like that!"  I guess what I should do is smile and remind myself, "Yeah--

My stuff doesn't look like that!"











Thursday, July 24, 2014

Aint No Rockefeller, And Other Thoughts...







I remember well years ago when I was working on a portrait and struggling mightily.  I couldn't for the life of me see what was wrong with the face, but yet it still didn't look quite right.  Anyone who has ever tried to draw a recognizable human face will know what I'm talking about.  So I was huffing, and puffing and frustrated when a person (who will remain nameless) said to me, "Well, you know-- you're no Rockefeller."  I blinked my eyes a few times then said, "Rockwell.  I'm no Rockwell."

Ah... ex-wives...

I then tweaked a portion of the jaw-line 1/32nd of an inch, and the whole face snapped right into place.



I mention this portrait story because the project I'm currently working on involves a young girls face.  I don't have to make it look just like her, (because, after all, nobody knows her) but I do have to make her look pleasant.  The painting also involves a little landscape and still life.  I was zipping along feeling all kinds of pleased with myself, "Ooh-- that lamp is awesome!" and "Wow, I nailed that table edge!"  You know, stuff like that-- when I came to do her face.  Then it dawned on me:

The whole point of the painting rests on the young girls expression.  No one will give a royal rat's ass how well I painted wood grain, or glass or any other part of the picture if I screw that face up.  I can't stiffen up on it, I can't over-work it, I have to use just the exact right colors.  In short-- it has to be perfect.

No pressure...





Which leads me to the question of whether it's a good or bad thing to put too much pressure on ourselves when we paint.  After all, shouldn't one paint for the joy of it?  Doesn't pressuring oneself to create a masterpiece suck all the joy out of the process?  Do results matter when no matter what you put out there it can still be called "Art"?

Hhmmm... let me think about it...


Would anyone advise a Major League baseball player to step up to the plate and just swing the bat without caring if he hit the ball or not?  "Just swing for the joy of it!"  Wouldn't be a Big-Leaguer for very long if he did.

Would anyone give advice to a carpenter to just cut some boards and hammer some nails-- maybe it'll look like a house?  "It's the thrill of the wood that matters!"

Why is it OK to tell a painter to just slap paint without caring how it will look? 

Is our poor Artists psyche's really that fragile?  Is painting so stressful that we'll collapse in a fetal position, sucking our thumb in the corner if we try too hard?  Look-- if you don't care about the result, then find something else to do that you will care about.

When I'm working on a painting I am trying my damndest to make it the very best I can possibly make it.  I don't want a painting of mine to end up in a garage sale when it longer matches the couch. I know it may sound far-fetched if not a bit grandiose; Believe it or not, I'm trying to make an heirloom that will be cherished for generations.

In summation:  I think it's important to care.




Speaking of caring; I've become one of those painters.  You know what I mean-- I now take up to a month to complete a painting.  I used to pride myself on the speed with which I could knock out a picture.  It was a skill acquired from only having a few spare moments at a time to paint in between working a couple of jobs and raising two kids.  Then when I started painting full time, I slowed down to completing a painting in about three days.  But over time the complexity of my subjects, along with the technique I use to paint them has meant it takes longer to do them.  I don't mind.  It usually means a better finished product in the end, after all.  What chaps my butt is taking all that time and the painting turns out to be a dud.






I've been doing paintings based on a theme of life in 19th Century I call Americana.  Once I come up with an idea, I spend a lot of time researching to get the details right.  I recently finished the painting Clearing A New Field which shows a team of oxen pulling a large rock.  I live in farming country so I figured finding oxen to look at wouldn't be too tough.  I was wrong.  After asking around some, I got a lead for an ox and horse farm about forty minutes away from me.  I was told a nice woman runs the place and was sure to accommodate me.

They were wrong.


I sent her an email explaining what I was looking for and headed there.  I could tell when I met said woman that this wasn't going to go well.  "What do you want to use my oxen for?  Why don't you use cows-- they look like cows.  I get people bugging me all the time to take pictures of my oxen.  Are you going to take photo's?  What do you do with them?  Do you sell them? What kind of painting?  What are you going to do with it?"  And on, and on...  She told me she only works them twice a week and would let me know when she planned to have them out again.  I thanked her and left.  All that was in early June, and I've yet to hear back from her.


So I used cows instead...







I like it better when I have a little more control over my set up and props.  And if I'm going to do an old fashioned scene, having authentic clothes and props goes a long way.  I had an idea for a painting that I'd been carrying around in my head for awhile, but I couldn't really do anything with it until I bought an old dress in an antique shop.  Setting up a scene and drawing it from life is super fun.








It also beats having to talk to grumpy oxen owners.  I was lucky that the dress didn't cost very much, because after all--


I'm no Rockefeller.  








Thursday, June 12, 2014

Americana




West Side



It seems to me that folks just love to know what makes an artist tick.  They want to learn where the artist gets his or her ideas, or what motivates them.  When asking me where I get my inspiration, the question is usually framed, "What the hell are you thinking?"  Believe it or not, I get that question a lot.  Even when I'm not doing anything artistic.  People just want to know, I guess...

So, to settle your curiosity, I thought I'd tell you about a series of paintings I'm doing called "Americana".  And when I say a series, I really have no idea how many I will do.  It's kinda like a Hollywood TV series;  They have no idea how long the show will go on either.  Sure, they want their show to be a huge hit like M*A*S*H or Gunsmoke-- long running, highly revered series.  What they don't want is Manimal.  But, unlike a Hollywood television series, I guess I'm going to keep doing them as long as I want regardless of the "ratings".

So anyways, Americana stems from my love of American history.  Ever since I was a wee tyke I have long felt I was born a century too late. Maybe it was because when I was about 5 or 6 years old, my family moved into an old, beat-up house in Maine.  Nothing had been thrown out of that house for decades.  Aside from the truck loads of garbage that were in every room, it was also chocked full of antiques; Horse-hair parlor furniture, brass beds, old books-- you name it.  Something inside me clicked, and to this day, I have a love of antiques that makes me want to learn about the world those things occupied.

My affinity for days gone by shows in my art as well.  When I was a kid, while my friends were drawing '69 Chevy Nova's or spaceships, I was drawing Civil War soldiers!  (Yeah, I was a geek).  As I grew older, I hid my inner geek and started painting more conventional landscapes and such. But in my mind, a sight like December Field or Farm Lane could have been seen a century ago. 


December Field



Farm Lane

Recently, I thought it would be fun to challenge myself and do an old-fashioned scene straight from my imagination, but with costumes and props to bring about a sense of authenticity to the scene.  I chronicled the making of Morning Chores here.  With that painting, I let my Americana flag fly.

I followed it up with The Scyther:


The Scyther


Then came Sugar Maple Season:


Sugar Maple Season
 

 Followed by Ice Harvest:


Ice Harvest

Each picture gave me a chance to research and explore the past-- and re-live it a little too.  The best part is that they are a boat-load of fun to do!


As I was getting more involved in these pictures, I started to look around the art world to see who else was doing stuff like this.  To my surprise, I didn't really find anybody.  Oh sure, Western themed art is huge right now.  Scenes of Cowboys and Indians and rustlers on the range are doing quite well.  There are also plenty of painters who do period genre pictures as well.  Those artists hang out at living history reenactment gatherings, take some photos and paint cute kids in bonnets or grizzled frontiersmen (who are really accountants in their day jobs).  Those paintings look pretty much like scenes straight out of Little House On The Prairie.  But what I want to show is the act of living in those times, not just how it looked.  If you think about it, the pictorial possibilities are endless.


As I came up with my Americana theme, I wanted to keep certain parameters in mind:

First off, like I just mentioned; show common people-- men and women-- of the late 19th century working or doing everyday activities that were part of their lives but are forgotten by us these days.

Be as authentic as possible. 

Come up with my own scene-- I will not just colorize an old black and white photo.

Speaking of photos-  Do not use a photographers viewpoint whenever possible.  What I mean is this:  In today's world, we all use photos to help us paint.  Most of the pictures we take are from cameras held up to our faces, giving us a view point of about five and a half feet off the ground.  Even if we eschew photos and paint from life, the view point is the same.  I don't want that.  My viewer could be looking up from the ground, or high overhead looking down from the ceiling.  It's an old illustrators trick, and one I really like.  So I'm stealing utilizing it.


As I was doing these paintings I had no earthly idea what I was going to do with them.  I was painting them for the number one reason to paint:  Because I wanted to.  Luckily, the folks at Bayview Gallery in Brunswick, Maine saw them and asked to represent them.  So, I guess if you do what you love good things will follow.  Yeah-- who knew?


Our hope is that this will be a long-running series.  After all, the world doesn't need another Manimal.



.

Monday, May 5, 2014

So, What The Heck Happened?







Although I've been painting for almost forty years, it wasn't until 2007 that I decided to shuck off the mortal coils of the 9 to 5 life and try to make a living as an artist.  I had a very good track record of sales doing art part time, and I thought that if I devoted 100% of my time to my art I could only improve and better my chances of selling even more.  Of course, I didn't blindly just quit my job and jump off the cliff of faith-- I mean, you gotta be crazy to do something like that...

OK, maybe I did.

But I had no idea the economy was going to fall to pieces in just a few months after I made my decision.  I was looking at the past to portend the future.  Usually, studying past tendencies is a good way to try to assess future behavior.  In a perfect world we always assume that what was will just continue to be.  (Somebody wake me up when we arrive at a perfect world).  Ah, but we live in strange and mysterious times.  I didn't see the perfect storm looming on the horizon.  What I saw was that in the last quarter of the 20th century, art sales actually did quite well (mine included).  Now the reason of course, was because there was money to be spent.  But more importantly was the feeling of stability.  Stability in our jobs, our lives and the natural order of things.  But things were changing, and dynamics shifting.  As in so many areas of the second half of the 20th century, the Baby Boom generation played a large part. 


When the Boomers were done tuning in, turning on and dropping out they entered the work place their parents had built.  After the global devastation of WWII, America was the only country left standing that could manufacture and supply the world with what it needed to rebuild.  Manufacturing plants were still humming in the late 1960's.  Corporations were still head-quartered in the U.S.  Jobs with good paying salaries could still be had.  Oh sure, it wasn't total Shan-gri-la; Inflation was rampant, we had gas shortages, there was still plenty of unemployment.  But if you landed a job back then, the chances of you staying in it until you retired were pretty good. 


So the Boomers went to work and rose through the ranks to mid-management, supervisors and eventually business owners.  Houses were bought and walls needed to be adorned.  Art started to be bought.  By the time of the 1980's, corporation mergers created even more wealth, and conspicuous consumption was not thought of as a bad thing.  In the '90's the Dot Com industry sprang up, creating millionaires over-night.  Individual art collectors were amassing private collections as investments.  Many businesses and corporations bought art for their board rooms.  All was going well for the arts.


Case in point:  Here in Maine a large bank specializing in credit cards came in and built beautiful call center "campuses" in several coastal towns, giving much-needed work to thousands of people.  The bank owner loved maritime art.  The walls were covered with top-notch artwork done by local artists.  They bought those pieces from art galleries that were in those towns.  The owner of a gallery I'm in still waxes rhapsodic about the good old days when artists couldn't paint fast enough to keep up with the demand, and she couldn't keep paintings on the walls.


So, what the heck happened?


You don't need me to tell you that over time the businesses that the Baby Boom generation inherited relocated overseas for higher profits, the Dot Com bubble burst and "Down Sizing" entered our collective vocabulary.  After 9/11 the economy shuddered for the first time in decades, only to grind to a halt a few years later.  Housing prices collapsed.  Stocks sank.  You know the story.  And that's when the storm really set in; Art wasn't needed for houses in foreclosure.  Businesses went under, and those that remained didn't need to adorn their walls with art for the small work force that remained.  Then the Baby Boomers decided about then that it would be a perfect time to retire and simplify their lives.  They moved into smaller condos, they started to sell off their possessions-- they stopped acquiring art. 


The sons and daughters of the Boomers who are left to pick up the pieces don't have the feeling of job stability their parents once enjoyed.  Even if they still have a full-time job, they feel that the chances of it being a temporary gig is high.  They continue to worry about having a job next year.  So why buy art for a house when you'll probably be moving soon?  Wages have stagnated, with earning power far below what their parents enjoyed.  For a lot of people, discretionary income isn't "Do we buy a painting, or not?"  It's "Do we buy food, or heating oil?"  


That bank I told you about that had all those beautiful works of art was sold.  The new owners moved the operations to a different state, leaving the vast majority of the buildings either vacant or half filled by some smaller start-up companies renting the space.  The art is gone.  The galleries that once couldn't keep up with the demand are out of business, or just barely hanging on.  In today's business world buying art doesn't increase the bottom line.  Some businesses still like art though, so what they do nowadays is ask for artists to hang their work for free for a month or so.  To them, it's a win-win.  They get free art, and the artist gets "exposure".  Except the remaining employees are so paranoid that they are afraid to lift their eyes over their cubicles, and the artist rarely makes a dime because in today's lock-down world, no one else is allowed in to see it.


So, do I regret taking a leap of faith just as the world lurched sideways?  Not for a moment.  But still- things could've been a tad bit better... 


But what can be done?  Is there a way to bring the good times back?  Well, Golden-Ages never last, that's why we cherish them.  But believe it or not, there is still a ton of money out there.  Some economists say even more than thirty years ago.  The world- and mankind- does have a long history of destruction and rebirth.  The storm may finally be lifting, but the landscape has been irrevocably altered.  We know that the forces that brought the late, great golden age cannot happen again.  (And personally, I'd rather not have the world destroyed by WWIII just so we can have a thriving art economy thirty years later).  Even though history does have a habit of repeating itself, this time we have to chart a different course.


What is that course going to look like?  What path- or paths- do we have to blaze to reach a new height?  I have no solid answer.  But  I know one thing:  Art right now is pretty low on the totem pole of the necessities of life.  We need to make it a part of living again.  If art stays out of sight, it stays out of mind.  Budget cuts have eliminated many school arts programs.  That is a nearsighted shame.  Art needs to be taught in schools again so our children can have it for the rest of their lives.  Today's child will be tomorrow's business owner.  If he or she is brought up with art, maybe they'll want it in their workplace.  Art needs to be in more public spaces for all to see and enjoy.  As artists, we need to be out there doing our thing; Give public demonstrations on painting, sculpting- whatever.  Let people see what they are missing; Make them say, "I want that!" 


I know these are baby steps for the future, and won't help you or I out today.  Art cannot ensure job stability, it won't bring more money into the hands of more people.  Those things are beyond our control.  But if we use today to create the need for tomorrow, future artists may thank us.  I can think of no greater legacy than being part of the generation that set the course for another Golden Age.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Ain't It The Truth?

It's March.  Late March to be precise.  The sun is shining brightly, yet it's 24 degrees outside my studio this afternoon, with a wind chill that makes it feel like zero.  Snow and ice blanket the surrounding countryside as deeply as a mid-January day.

Aahhh.... Spring!


Now, I will grant you that most of the country views March as the first month of Spring, but in Maine it's the last month of Winter.  Actually, our seasons go like this:  Spring is April, May and June.  Summer is July 10-18.  August, September and October are Fall, and November through March is Winter. 

This snow and cold has been helpful with one thing, though:  My current painting.  It's a Winter scene, and I've been using this extended Winter to step outside and study light, shadow and snow effects to make my picture more truthful.  And that's where I'm going completely wrong...


Don't get me wrong-- I like the picture.  Or rather, I like the potential it still holds.  But I'm having my usual fight between Truth vs Art.  I've written about this ongoing battle before, as astute readers of my blog (and you know who you are) will attest.  (No, not you.  The one in the back over there.  Yeah-- you.)  It seems the paintings I admire most are beautiful combinations of reality, but within the framework of great Art.  For instance, take a peek at one of my favorite Andrew Wyeth Paintings:





Most folks think of this painting as a realistic, truthful depiction of a Maine house.  But in reality, this isn't what Andy saw at all.  Well, kinda, but not in the strictest sense.  The Olsen house here does look like this, and he painted it very recognizably.  But what's important is that he painted it the way he felt about it.  So he took out any distracting trees or useless details that have nothing to do with his emotions about the place.  He simplified subordinate passages and used detailed precision on the important ones.  He used his signature color scheme of greys and ochres to tie all the elements together.  So yeah, it's what he saw, but more importantly-- he made it look like Art.


And that's the problem I'm having with my little painting.  It's the court stenographers transcription of a trial as opposed to the newspapers story as opposed to the novel about the trial.  Know what I mean?  It's Linus mirthlessly plinking Jingle. Bells. Jingle. Bells. on his toy piano as opposed to Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way...  So yeah, my painting looks like a truthful depiction of a scene set during a Winter's afternoon.  But it ain't Art.  Not yet.  But it will be.

Maybe to keep myself from being tempted to overly "truth" it up, I should wait to finish it until after Spring arrives.


And the way things feel outside, that won't be anytime soon.  After all, it's still Winter...


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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

If It's All The Same To You...





All aboard for a ride on a twisting train of thought...


After a couple of weeks of research, sketching and doing color studies for a painting I'm starting, I got the thought that I have evolved into a slow, methodical painter.  Not that I want to be, mind you.  My slowness is just the result of a combination of my current painting technique and my tendency to over-think everything.  In reality I have the attention span of a gnat coupled with the patience of a two-year old.  So on occasion I will cast an envious glance at those painters who can seemingly bang out a complex painting in just a few hours.

There are a couple of different ways one can acquire speed in painting, I guess.  One is to have a complete and total mastery over every element of color and paint application possible.  The other is to do things the same way every time.  It's a lot easier to paint a landscape, say, when one paints trees and skies with the same colors and in the same way in every painting, changing only the composition.  It doesn't make any difference whether the tree is on the right or the left of the picture when you've painted it the same way before.  Same thing with seascapes; When an artist uses the same ocean, rocks and sand in every painting, all that has to be done is re-arrange them from picture to picture.  If you do it that way, you can bang those bad boys out!

Cranking out pictures in this way isn't anything new, by the way, it's actually a tried and true manner of painting that artists have done for centuries.  Take Thomas Buttersworth for example. 




I recently read a delightful book called Caveat Emptor by Ken Perenyi.  (It's available at Amazon Books).  Perenyi was an art forger who made a handsome living passing off paintings done in the style of 19th century painters.  He didn't copy known paintings by these people, ("Hey look!  I found another DaVinci version of the Mona Lisa!") but by painting pictures in the style of those artists, he was able to claim he found them tucked up in an attic somewhere.  If you want to know how he fooled all the experts with his fakes, you have to read the book-- and I recommend it.


Anyway, Perenyi noticed that painters like Buttersworth and others used repeated elements in their paintings.  With Buttersworth, the skies were almost always painted the same way, along with the ocean and backgrounds.  He even re-used the yachts many times.   Just as Buttersworth did, all Perenyi had to do was apply those motifs in different configurations and voila!  A new Buttersworth has been found!  Now, Buttersworth and all the other painters who did this didn't care that their paintings carried redundancies because who was ever going to see twenty of them lined up on a wall?  In those days most people never went to fancy art galleries, and heck, back then even the interweb was still a gleam in Al Gore's eye!  And that got me thinking about artists of today.


There's a current artist out there (among many) whose works I admire whenever I see them pop up in social media.  Well, Facebook really, because that's where my social media knowledge begins and ends.  Anyhow, I went to that artists web site to check out more paintings.  What I saw astounded me.

Like many web sites, this artist had about twenty thumbnails on the page, my computer screen making them little more than a postage stamp in size, and each one at that small scale was indistinguishable from the other!  The colors, the subjects, the orientation of the paintings-- all looked identical.  It wasn't until you enlarged them that you could see the (very subtle) differences between each painting.  Look-- it's one thing to have a style that's identifiable, I get that, but having each painting look the same is to me the kiss of death.  Buttersworth could pull it off back in his day, but in today's Google Image, instant world?  Not so much. 

Yeah, I know all about that "Paint what sells" philosophy, (and I'm still trying to catch that elusive snipe myself) but I would think that having your paintings be of the same subjects done in the same manner would have to make it awfully hard to sell, wouldn't it?  Think about it: Why would a collector keep coming back to purchase the same painting? I mean, if you've seen one, you've seen them all, am I right?  I would assume that you'd have to keep finding new buyers, but I am on the painting side of the ledger, not the client's side.  So what do I know?  Still, I have a hard time believing that a gallery would ring up an artist and say, "Hey-- people love your painting of ______!  No, no-- don't change a thing!  Keep painting them exactly the same!"

But look at artists whose style is iconic.  Andrew Wyeth painted in browns and grays in an abstract/hyper realistic way-- if you get what I mean.  Sure, he revisited themes; The Olsen's of Cushing Maine, The Kuerner's of Chadd's Ford, Helga-- but he didn't paint twenty different versions of Christina's World.  You know, with Christina in the left corner of this one, and in the upper right corner of that one, and in this one she's in the middle of the field-- No, one was enough.  But that's kind of like the impression I got when I looked at that afore-mentioned artists web site; (and many others) Twenty different versions of the same thing.  So with Wyeth, while his style remained the same, every painting he did was unique.  (Oh, sure-- others have utilized the Wyeth look in their paintings, and do you know what those artists are called?  Painter's in the school of... Or, painters in the manner of... Or, Copy Cats.  But that's a different subject.)

If you've studied enough art, you should be able to spot an artist by their style first, and subject second.  In a room full of South Western paintings, a Maynard Dixon should jump off the wall.  On a web page of Impressionists, the difference between a Monet landscape and a landscape by William Merritt Chase should be as obvious as the nose on your face.  It's not the subjects of the paintings that identify them, but in there manner of treatment.

I'm not writing all this just to pick on one poor artist; Just that I've seen this trait before.  So to be clear-- I'm not saying that person, or all artists should change their style and subject with every painting. Oh no, on the contrary; Find your own style, and it should be as unique as your thumb print, just maybe you shouldn't do the same painting over and over.  I know it's a fine line between being known as a "Painter of ______" and a "One-Trick Pony".  But doesn't it stand to reason that if you always paint the same things the same way-

It's just all the same?


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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Scythe Of Relief



The Scyther


Remember when I was talking about doing this painting of a guy haying in a field?  And I said how much I like to plan stuff?  Remember?  And I went how much fun it was to think up stuff, like, out of my head?  Remember?  And now here it, I mean he, no-- this painting is done.  Remember when I talked about it?

Well, here it is: The Scyther, oil on canvas 24X24 inches.  I was gonna call it The Scythist, but I thought it would sound a bit pretentious...

I had a blast with this one, I must admit.  I really got the whole idea for a composition when I saw an old photo of clouds I had taken on a lovely summer's afternoon.  I imagined my farmer silhouetted against those clouds as he swung his scythe through the weeds (which look remarkably like the ones in my field...). 


Speaking of clouds, they are a perfect opportunity to loosen up and go abstract.  If you think about it, clouds are just water vapor, and as such they can reflect and refract all kinds of light and color.  Really, you can put all the colors of the rainbow in your clouds, and no one is the wiser.  I tried to keep that in mind when I did my sky.







I also wanted to stay loose and have some fun with my farmers shirt.  Since he is kind of leaning over with his back to the sun, it gave me a good chance to reflect the sky and the ground into his shirt.  I did the same thing with his pants and boots
 




I do have a couple antique scythes kicking around that I used for props in this painting.  And again, I wanted to keep things loose, but accurate.  But it was my lovely Ellen that reminded me that I needed to put a bolt in the bottom of the handle.  Can you see it in the picture below?




Keeping it real for Ellen!


Anyway, I always breathe a scythe   sigh of relief whenever I'm done a painting, but I'm also a little sad that I had to end the good times.  So because I had so much fun with this one, I'm doing another old-time scene.   It's getting to be maple sugar season soon.

Stay tuned...



Friday, January 31, 2014

Let's Take A Closer Look, Shall We?




I know what you're thinking.  You're saying, "Gosh Kev, it's been days since you last posted an insightful and eloquent commentary about Norman Rockwell.  What took so long?"

Well, first off-- you're welcome.  And secondly, February 3rd marks the one hundred twentieth anniversary of his birth in 1894.  Since he's been in the news recently with the selling of one of his masterpieces for 46 million dollars, and had a bad book written about him, I thought I'd take a moment to show why I like the guy:

Say what you will about his impact on American Art, he was a great painter.  Don't believe me?  C'mere, I'll show you.


The above advertisement was for a little mom-and-pop telephone company named AT&T.  In 1949 they commissioned him to portray a lineman in the act of stringing wires.  Back then, telephones were connected by wires.  How archaic!  Anyway, it was a simple enough project; One lone guy against a nondescript back-drop.  Just a typical, run of the mill assignment for any illustrator.  The painting looks like this:




You can already see the differences between the poor reproduction of the ad against the painting. Illustrators got paid for the ad, but not for the size of the painting.  Most of them would probably have used cheap illustration board for this ad and made it relatively small, say 24X36 inches or even smaller.  After all, the image was only going to be seen in newspapers and magazines. Rockwell, though, painted this (as he did almost all of his work) on premium Belgian linen.  And he made it huge.  The actual painting is five feet by three and a half feet.  It was common practice by most illustrators to ship off their finished pieces to the client unframed.  Again, it's not going to a gallery or anything, so what's the point?  Not Norman.  He always had his paintings framed before he sent them off.  He felt it made a greater visual impact to the art editor, and thus would get him more work in the future.

Apparently, it worked...


To get this scene, AT&T set up a ten foot telephone pole, and supplied the worker.  Rockwell's photographer set up below and took photos at Rockwell's direction.  The first posing session was in early spring.  Norman came up with a design for the painting, but apparently either he or AT&T wasn't happy enough, so that summer they did it all over again.  That meant all the work he did earlier was out the door, and he had to start from scratch once again.


Next came the painting.  If you are ever in New England, take a trip to the beautiful Berkshire area of western Massachusetts and visit the Norman Rockwell Museum.  Not only is this painting there, but even better-- they let you take photos!  Recently I visited there and took full advantage of that policy.  (Don't forget to click on these up-coming photos for an even larger view.)

One of the knocks on Rockwell was that he used photos in his work.  The feeling was that all he did was copy them.  In truth those photos were not only in black and white, but they were rarely the entire scene.  He pieced them all together from the collection of specific shots; an arm, then a leg, then a foot, etc.  Rockwell then added his brilliant sense of color.  Take a look at this segment of the painting:




See how the man's face is seemingly a monotone shadow?  Let's look closer:



 
 
He didn't get those colors from a black and white photo!  It is a bit blurred, and that's not because of my photography, but because he didn't have a lot of detail in his reference.  But rest assured that if he had wanted detail, he would have had his photographer do a close-up.  At that point in his career Rockwell never did "Good enough..."
 
 
Now, when we look at that ordinary plaid coat the lineman is wearing, it would seem rather a simple thing to paint, wouldn't it?  I mean black and red.  How tough is that?  Here's how Rockwell treated that coat:
 
 



Thick, juicy impasto paint with every shade of red, orange, pink, brown, black and blue you can think of.  Can you feel that heavy wool?  Absolutely marvelous!



Have you ever stood beside a telephone pole?  Its bland weathered grey wood seems rather featureless.  How would you paint it?  Here's how Norman handled it:





Can you see the thick clumps of color applied with a trowel?  Rockwell used variegated colors quite frequently.  In his paintings a white shirt is never white, and here a grey telephone pole is a wild array of ochres, grays, browns, reds and blues.  Did he need to do this?  No, not for an advertisement-- but yes to make it Art.


Speaking of variegating colors, check out how he treated the lineman's simple brown leather belt:




My word-- are you seeing this?  From a distance (and scaled down to a photograph) it seems brown enough.  But this belt is anything but brown.  Oh, and don't forget that bolt sticking through the pole; it too is filled not only with detail, but life.


Now, the object of this commission was to show some fancy, high tech gadget that AT&T was trotting out.  They were very persnickety for him to show it in beautiful, but exacting detail:




I'd say another job well done.  (And I didn't even mention that spectacular apple tree he painted!  It's as good as any branch that Andy Wyeth drew).  All in all, there were eleven changes that AT&T had Rockwell make before they were satisfied.  Of course, that doesn't count how many changes Norman made until he was satisfied-- all the while knowing that most of the nuance he imparted would be lost in the printing.


It's this seemingly simple painting for an ordinary advertisement that makes me want to bow down in front of it and say, "I'm not worthy... I'm not worthy!"  The amount of effort and attention to detail-- while still making a beautiful piece of art-- is breath-taking. 

THAT'S why I am a fan of Norman Rockwell.


So happy birthday Norm!  The good may die young, but the greats like you will live on forever.




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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Falling In Love With Love





Everybody knows a "Debi".  She was engaged to be married to Doug, who was a real nice guy.  But the concept of a lifetime of marriage and devotion never entered into Debi's head.  We all knew what she was more in love with:

The Wedding.

Every topic of conversation was a kick-start for her to bring up The Wedding.  "Gee, I hope it's not raining like this on The Wedding!"  Or, "Oh, I hope it's a beautiful day like this for The Wedding!"  She talked non-stop about the planning of The Wedding;  What napkins to order, the flowers the bridesmaids would use, the invitations, the booze at the reception-- it was all about The Wedding.

Forty-eight months after The Wedding came the inevitable Divorce.


I will admit that when it comes to planning paintings, I am Debi times ten.  I thoroughly enjoy doing prep sketches.  I relish dwelling over the design.  I delight in thinking about how great I can make my idea.  It's not the marriage that's exciting, it's The Wedding!  Anyway, it's OK to snap a photo of a nice scene and make a painting from it, but I have to say my passion is to try and make a realistic painting from my imagination.  It's not easy, and it takes a ton of planning and preparation, but that's why I love it.  Take the picture I'm working on now, for instance.


I love history.  The vast majority of my landscapes might be scenes from today, but I hardly ever put modern elements in them.  I'm the old barn, rock wall and open field kind of guy.  Could it be today, or one hundred years ago?  Every once in a while I get the itch to do a straight-up historical picture.  I've wanted to paint a farmer haying a field for quite some time.  I would look longingly at my antique hay scythe and try to drum up an idea, but no luck.  Last week as I was finishing up a painting, the idea came to me.  I set up a mirror, grabbed my scythe and did this:


 
 
In case you don't know what this is, it's a guy haying a field with a scythe.  My idea was to have a semi-worms eye view of this guy coming at you silhouetted by the clouds of a hot summer day.  This sketch grabbed my attention.  I then went to the interweb to view videos of people scything hay so I could be sure I got the posture correct. 
 
Yes, everything is on the web!
 
 
Realizing that my mirror image had put my man in the wrong direction, I just reversed the photo to this because a right-handed hayer will throw the hay over to his left:
 
 

OK, now I needed someone to pose for me so I could get the proper view.  Often, I will take a photo of me posing, but I knew the camera perspective wasn't going to be as accurate as I needed it to be.  So I used my buddy Jim:





I did use photos (obviously) for wrinkles and such, because Jim's old, arthritic back wasn't up for long poses.  I did do a thorough drawing of him, though.  He thinks I made him look fat, but I reminded him that charcoal adds twenty pounds...  So anyway, putting all the info together, I drew up a 12X12 inch preparatory drawing:




I used all that planning and design stuff on this.  I want the clouds to kind of swoop down to the blade in the lower right corner.  I intend to give the blade a sparkling sun-glint, so I put a far off stand of dark trees behind it to make it more obvious.  I love doing these drawings because I can monkey with them to my hearts content.  If the whole thing blows up in my face, all I've lost is a piece of paper and cheap charcoal. 


The painting will measure 24X24inches.  So I needed to size the drawing up to get it on the canvas.  Lucky for me, I have a large screen HDTV in my studio I use as a monitor for my computer.  It has a 37inch screen, so I took a photo of my drawing, then blew it up on the screen to 24inches.  From there, I took some tracing paper and copied the drawing.




After that was done, I smeared soft charcoal all over the back of the tracing, then re-copied the whole thing onto the canvas.




I gridded the whole thing so my reference points would line up correctly.  Taking a break from all that, I also took a moment to do a quick color sketch.




Sure, it may not look like much, but it gave me a good idea of how I want to approach my color scheme. 


Now that I had the drawing lightly traced onto the canvas, I went back over it and redefined the entire thing.  I tweaked a leg here, I changed the scythe a scosh, and I noodled the sky a tad bit.  Now the canvas looks like this all ready for paint!




Now that the planning is just about done, the next thing is the walking down the aisle.  I know everything is going to be perfect and just like I always dreamed!

Just like Debi's Wedding...

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Look At The Fish!

 
 


Louis Agassiz was the most renowned scientist of the 19th Century.  He was so well respected that students from all over the world made pilgrimages to study under him.  One student recalled that Agassiz put him in a room alone with a smelly dead cod and said simply, "Look at the fish."  After several hours Agassiz came back in and asked the student to tell him about the fish. 

"Well, it has scales, and some fins..." stammered the student, but Agassiz cut him off.

"You are telling me what you already know about it.  Look at the fish!" Agassiz exclaimed, then left the student alone with the fish for several more hours.  When the great scientist returned, the student was able to go into far greater detail about the fish.

What on Earth does that story have to do with the Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover from World War One?  A lot.


If you are going to read only one book about Norman Rockwell, do yourself a favor and do not make it American Mirror by Deborah Solomon.  Her agenda  thesis behind her writing this is to show how Rockwell was a closet homosexual leaning toward pedophilia.  She asserts that his repressed impulses are hidden in his art. 

Yeah... What?

The author is an art critic who has spent the vast majority of her life telling us what to think in regards to the unintelligible drips and splatters that comprise late 20th Century art.  And it's a good gig; Who's gonna say you're wrong if you write some mumbo-jumbo about some smeared paint on canvas?  But the more one does that, the more one can fall into the intellectual vacuum of inserting one's own emotions instead of the artists.  It's a Rorshach Test approach to critiquing.




("I see butterflies kissing!"  "I see an angry Mommy coming to beat her child over spilt milk...")


The problem starts when you try the same mumbo-jumbo on paintings that are meant to be painfully obvious.  So, in Ms Solomon's interpretation, almost every painting Rockwell did holds some clue as to his repressed homosexuality.  Now, really,  that an artist could be gay should come as no shock.  (Warhol, anyone?)  And to imply that one is gay should be met with the Seinfeld Defense: "Not that there's anything wrong with that!"  But it's the author's claiming that Rockwell was attracted to little boys because of his gay leanings speaks more about her mindset about homosexuality than anything Rockwell painted.  If one is Gay, then one is naturally a pedophile.  It's just common sense!  Her "proof" behind her brilliant theory?  He painted little boys a lot.  And he did it really well...

Yeah... What? 

I mentioned in an earlier post about how Rockwell was beholden to his clients, advertisers and magazines editors.  It was they who dictated what Rockwell painted.  Even when he was given free reign as to his depiction of a subject, the idea almost always came from them first, and he still had parameters within which he had to work.  Remember, Rockwell was an Illustrator, not a Fine Art Artist. 

Needless to say, Rockwell's family-- who cooperated with her for this book-- are very unhappy.  Fellow Rockwell fans and scholars are calling Bullshit on her bat-shit crazy concept.  Personally, I'm not going to go deeply into refuting charge after ridiculous charge.  I'll give you two paths to follow if you are so inclined.  One is this excellent article, and this one is a follow up.


I'm going to talk about the fish. 


Look at this painting again:




In Solomon's world here's proof of Rockwell's homoerotic tendencies.  What do we have here?  Two Navy guys-- and really, aren't all Navy guys gay?  I mean, it goes without saying.  What are they doing?  Fondling each other.  One is evidently going to be the "Pitcher" and the other one will definitely be the "catcher".  You can tell this by the loving caress the gay sailor on the right (the one with the pretty bow) is giving the gay bloke on the left.  Good Lord, how obvious does Rockwell have to make it?

No.  Look at the fish!

The sailor on the right got a letter from his girl back home.  See the envelope and picture he's holding?  You can tell she's a girlfriend (or wife) -but not just a friend- from the lipstick kiss next to her picture.  The sailor is so lost in his reverie about how much he misses her, and all the fun they had, that he forgets where he's at and who he's with as he gently touches his friend's knee-- as if he were his lady love.  His friend is a big, tough, lantern-jawed old salt whose twice the size of his little friend.  His machismo is evident in his tattoos and his pipe smoking.  He looks down at his friend whose hand is on his knee with a "Dude, you better get your hand off my knee quick!"  attitude.

That's the joke!  And that's all it is. 

Maybe Rockwell didn't quite have the chops this early in his career to pull off the perfect facial expressions to drive his point home.  But he did give the picture enough clues to let us know what is going on.  All we have to do is look.

Deborah Solomon could have stood a lesson from Louis Agassiz.

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